I Am Sausal Creek / Soy el Arroyo Sausal

author: Melissa Reyes
translator: Cinthya Jeannette Muñoz Ramos 
illustrator: Robert Trujillo 
Little Nomad / Nomadic Press, 2015 
grades 1-up

Sausal Creek’s own story flows with a gentle, poetic economy of words in English and Spanish, accompanied by loving, sparse artistic expression. As the creek’s story begins and ends at the same place, so does the text:

I am Sausal Creek. I have been flowing for a very, very long time. If you sit quietly upon my banks, you can hear my water rippling. If you listen carefully, you can hear my story.

Soy el Arroyo Sausal. He estado fluyendo por mucho, mucho tiempo. Si te sientas silenciosamente a mis orillas, puedes oir el ondear de mis aguas. Si escucha cuidadosamente, puedes escuchar mi historia.

As the watershed narrates, there are questions that will engage young readers and listeners: “Did you know I once flowed freely?” “Did you know that once a giant redwood forest stretched across these hills?” “Did you know there was rich, fertile soil along my banks?” “Did you know there is a place where my water empties out into a bay?”

Although Muñoz’s Spanish translation captures the written poetic musicality of the English, there are some typos (“escucha” should be “escuchas,” for instance), and some alternatives—such as “si te sientas en silencio” rather than “si te sientas silenciosamente” and “si escuchas bien” rather than “si escuchas cuidadosamente”—might make more sense to hablantes. But either way, the Spanish allows for young readers to follow in both languages.

Trujillo’s pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, on a palette of woodsy greens, browns and blues, portray the flora and fauna, and the multi-ethnic mixes of people who have and continue to inhabit this area. I especially like how he’s chosen to show—rather than tell—the positive and negative aspects of the area’s history. Here, in full color, are the Indigenous peoples, living in balance on the land, knowing that all things are related. Here, in stark brown and white, are the “newcomers”—ranchers and their cattle, gold miners, loggers, and later the city with its concrete-filled wetlands—destroying what they have “found.” And here, as people work together, ripping up the concrete dams and digging pools to restore the balance, the color begins to return. And finally, here are two young men, looking down into the water as trout swim around their reflections. As in the beginning—of the story and the creek—all things are related.

Generally, with a picture book, there has to be a narrow focus; and I Am Sausal Creek / Soy el Arroyo Sausal focuses on the environmental destruction and rebuilding of one particular watershed. Here, I like the approach of nature’s being the witness; at the same time, I would like to have had Reyes address—in the text—the human cost as well. To their credit, Reyes and Muñoz pack six pages of historical information (three in English and three in Spanish) into the back matter, so that educators can choose to expand the story.

Young children have the ability to understand complexities, and relate historical and contemporary events such as racism, land theft and even genocide to their own lives. I recommend that educators read and digest Deborah A. Miranda’s Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday, 2013), and visit her blog as well (badndns.blogspot.com). I also recommend, for children, Simon Ortiz’s stunning picture book, The People Shall Continue (Children’s Book Press, 1994). It’s an overview of the histories of Indian peoples in this land, and could be read together with I Am Sausal Creek / Soy el Arroyo Sausal.

With supporting materials, I Am Sausal Creek/ Soy el Arroyo Sausal is a promising debut, and is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/31/15)

Thank you to Oralia Garza de Cortes and Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

Show and Prove

author: Sofia Quintero
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
grades 9-up 
Puerto Rican

With the increasing gentrification of New York City, it’s sometimes hard to imagine the early 1980s in the city, when public officials, both local and national, wrote off huge swaths of the city populated by people of color. News and popular media stereotyped and dehumanized the people of northern Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, and the South Bronx, and unless you were there, you didn’t know that real people with real families walked these streets and inhabited these apartment buildings.

Set in the South Bronx in the summer of 1983, Sofia Quintero’s new novel captures this time through the voices of two 17-year-old boys—old friends who see circumstances pulling them apart. Raymond King, known as Smiles, has just lost his mother, a social worker and strong force in the community, to the complications of sickle cell anemia. Smiles is going into his senior year at an upper-class prep school downtown where he has received a scholarship but, as the only African-American student, doesn’t fit in. Left behind in a rowdy public school is his best friend Guillermo “Willie” Vega, who calls himself Nike and dreams of stardom as a break-dancer. The local gang, which has already drawn several of their old friends, has set its sights on Nike, but he wants to follow the rules and stay out of trouble. Nike sees former community leaders, including an old friend of Smiles’s father, ruined by the crack that the gang sells. It bothers him that his single mother receives welfare, and he blames her as much as his father, who abandoned the family and moved back to Puerto Rico. While Nike is politically conservative and considers material goods—for instance, the latest sneakers—as a sign of success, Smiles is attracted to the radical rhetoric of the Five Percent Nation of Islam and charismatic local leader Qusay, an ex-prisoner once known as Kevin.

The girls at the summer camp where Smiles and Nike work complicate their relationship, particularly Cookie Camacho, who beats Smiles out for the senior counselor position. He accuses the Puerto Rican camp director of favoritism. Nike is attracted to new girl Sara, who introduces him to the world and its conflicts in a way that he had never imagined. Both boys have their preconceived ideas challenged, along with their confidence in themselves. Both lose their dreams and must find a way to regroup and move forward. Above all, this is a story of friendship and community, how in the most neglected places people can come together to help each other and make better lives.

Quintero incorporates Spanish words and 1980s slang seamlessly into the novel, trusting readers to understand words from their context. Food plays a major role in the characters’ lives, and Sara’s unfamiliarity with Nuyorican staples is the first sign that she may not be the person Nike assumes she is:

I say, “The A&P got everything you need. There’s a whole Goya aisle with recaito, sofrito, sazón…” She looks like I just spoke Japanese. “I’m sorry.” Damn, Nike, stop doing shit you have to apologize for. You sound like a doofus. Just chill out. “I forgot that not all Puerto Ricans grow up speaking Spanish, you know.”

The news events of the time—particularly the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps—appear at first to be backdrop for this historical novel but end up playing a major role. The war comes to the South Bronx neighborhood in an unexpected way and in the process, changes Nike’s perspective on the world. Show and Prove is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 8/17/15)

A shorter version of this review appeared on The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com).

Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

author: Margarita Engle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 
grades 5-up 

While many younger readers in the United States have learned of the civil rights struggle in the South, the story of the Panama Canal has been taught as a heroic conquest of humans against nature. In a powerful novel in verse narrated from multiple perspectives—including the trees and forest creatures—Margarita Engle’s Silver People challenges both parts of this story. Readers see the racial segregation—the white American engineers paid in gold, and the darker Spanish and Black Jamaicans and other islanders paid in silver—as well as the destruction of the environment and its fatal consequences.

Engle’s principal storyteller is Mateo, a Cuban boy who signs a contract to build the canal at age 14 to escape abuse from his father. Nearly ten years after the end of the Spanish-American War, Mateo’s father, a former revolutionary, is an abusive alcoholic, and many Spaniards who had fought on the losing side are stranded on the island and looking for work. Mateo pretends to be one of them, for the labor contractors are only hiring men with “pure” European blood. In Panama, Mateo discovers only broken promises—low wages, substandard living conditions, bosses who care nothing for their workers; and bunkmates, Spanish anarchists, who scapegoat the clueless adolescent to protect themselves when the bosses discover their illegal newspaper. In the poem “Color Coded,” Mateo describes his stark introduction to racism, as well as to the harsh conditions of the land where he has signed on to work:

A foreman commands us to line up
by country:
Americans, Frenchmen, Dutch.
Spaniards, Greeks, Italians.
Jamaicans, Barbadians, Haitians.
Each work crew is a different shade
of light or dark,
but when the foreman orders us
to stand still while we’re measured
for our coffins,
dark and light faces
all look equally

Used to fighting with his father, Mateo spars with a Jamaican worker, Henry, who had signed a labor contract to provide money for his younger siblings’ schooling but has discovered that his low wages (the Black workers make only half of what the Spaniards make for the same jobs) aren’t even enough to pay his own expenses. Anita, an Indigenous girl who trades him herbs for paintings, and Augusto, a Puerto Rican engineer and master painter who finds himself demoted from “gold” to “silver” after the bigoted George Goethals takes over the project, help the young Mateo as he struggles to survive. While escape into the forest may be Mateo’s only option—an option made more difficult by his bouts with malaria—the consequences of getting caught trying to escape a contract are horrific.

Engle’s free verse is vivid and eloquent. So much is said with very few words. Equally poignant are the poems from the perspectives of howler monkeys, who scream for the invaders to “GO!”; the mosquitoes, snakes, and vultures who threaten the men; and the trees that fall to the men and machines. A poem from the trees’ perspective, “If Only,” reads:

If we could move swiftly
we would run
but our only movement
is growth
and less
after each sunrise
of dynamite explosions
and sharpened blades
of the ruthless

Silver People has wide appeal, from reluctant readers to serious history buffs, and it provides an essential counterpoint to the textbook narrative of the Panama Canal’s construction. At a time when Nicaragua has become the target of another canal-building project (this time initiated by a Chinese enterprise), Engle’s story-poem offers a vision of what will happen and a lesson on the importance of knowing our history. Silver People, which won the 2015 Américas Award, is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 8/9/15)

Joelito’s Big Decision / La Gran Decisión de Joelito

author: Ann Berlak
translator: José Antonio Galloso 
illustrator: Daniel Camacho 
Hardball Press, 2015
grades 2-5 
Mexican American

On April 15, 2015—little more than three months ago—about one million people across the country pulled off the largest demonstration of its kind in US history. The struggle, known as the “Fight for 15,” involved Walmart workers, fast-food workers, child care workers, home health workers, janitorial workers, and other underpaid workers—who, along with their many allies—demanded a minimum wage of $15 per hour and union rights for all. 

While world attention is focused on labor’s monumental “Fight for 15” struggle, Joelito’s Big Decision / La Gran Decisión de Joelito couldn’t have been published at a better time.

Through the eyes of fourth-grader Joelito Sánchez and his friends, the story shows the impact of low-wage work on the lives of two families, while pointing to the importance of allies in the struggle. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the one picture book that addresses this particular issue in a way that will resonate with youngest readers and listeners. 

Joelito, whose mother, uncles and grandparents had been farm workers, is initially unaware of the poverty in his own urban neighborhood. His parents are making ends meet and, along with his sister, the four spend every Friday evening together at their favorite fast-food restaurant. But when Joelito and his family encounter a labor action of underpaid restaurant workers—some of whom are his best friend’s family and some of his neighbors—he learns about the issues and comes to recognize the necessity of standing with them.

While the characters are fairly standard for a picture book, the text flows. In discussions between and among Joelito and his family and friends, and a conversation between a restaurant worker and a reporter, Berlak packs in a lot of information about underpaid workers exploited by arrogant and greedy zillionaire bosses (in this case, the ever-present image of “Sam McMann”), class struggle in general, and the “Fight for 15” in particular.

Camacho’s illustrations, rendered in charcoal and colored pencil on a palette of subdued tones, focus on main characters in the foreground and blend secondary characters, in gray tones, into the background. This technique, which reminds me of the classic Mexican murals, depicts large, round, clearly Indian faces (as opposed to “Sam McMann,” who is ominously pale with ghostly blue eyes). I especially like the panel that shows Joelito, somewhat confused, holding a picket sign, trying to decide between burger and protest. (See below.)

In reality, I’m not sure there would have been this kind of dilemma for a Mexican-American child whose family had been involved in the farm worker struggles and whose friends and neighbors are low-wage restaurant workers. It’s more likely that he would have grown up with his family’s stories of oppression and struggle and now, encountering a picket line walked by his friends and neighbors, would have just picked up a sign and joined them.

Galloso’s Spanish version is idiomatic and smooth flowing, and is satisfying and appealing on its own. For instance, when Joelito asks Mrs. Thomas what’s going on, the English version reads:

Mrs. Thomas said, “We’re picketing to let people know MacMann’s doesn’t pay us enough to support our families. We want fifteen dollars an hour, though even that’s not enough. We should earn enough so we can pay our bills and go on a family vacation.”

The Spanish version reads:

—Qué bueno que lo preguntas, Joelito –respondió la señora Thomas—. Hemos organizado esta protesta para que la gente sepa que MacMann’s no les paga a sus trabajadores un sueldo justo. Lo que pagan en MacMann’s no nos alcanza siquiera para mantener a nuestras familias. Queremos que nos paguen quince dólares la hora aunque ni siquiera eso es suficiente. Todo trabajador debería ganar lo suficiente como para poder pagar sus cuentas y tener unas vacaciones de vez en cuando. 

(“How good that you’re asking,” answered Mrs. Thomas. “We’ve organized this protest to let people know that MacMann’s doesn’t pay their workers a fair wage. What they pay at MacMann’s isn’t even enough for us to support our families. We want them to pay us fifteen dollars an hour although even that is not enough. All workers should earn enough to pay their bills and have some vacations from time to time.”)

Kudos to all involved in this gigantically important little book. Joelito’s Big Decision / La Gran Decisión de Joelito is recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/7/15)